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8 Things to Know When Pulling Weeds

Banish weeds the right way—and keep them from coming back—with these tips, tools, and techniques.

Ask any group of gardeners to cite their least favorite task is and you’re bound to hear a chorus of “Weeding!” Rampant weeds steal water and valuable nutrients from the soil that beneficial plants could be receiving, and their less-than-lovely heads detract from lawn and garden design.

In your quest to keep your landscape weed-free, it’s easy to make some overzealous mistakes. Before you begin pulling weeds, read on for the right way to vanquish green invaders and reduce their future growth. Your bountiful vegetable harvest and big beautiful flowers will thank you!

1. Don’t wait to weed.

If you let weeds tower over your tomatoes, you’ll have a tough time getting them out. When weeds are small, their roots are weaker, making it easier to pull them out. Commit to doing a quick walk-through of your garden every other day; it will take only a few minutes to pull up any young weeds that show up.

Bonus tip: Pull weeds soon after watering your plants or a rain shower; when the soil is moist, the whole weed is more likely to come out by the roots. It’s perfectly fine to put pulled weeds in your compost bin, where the naturally hot temperature will destroy any seeds.

2. Grab by the base.

Gardeners who weed manually may be tempted to reach down and snatch a handful give it a sharp tug. Unfortunately, that often causes the weed to snap in two, leaving the bottom half and the roots still in the ground. Instead, take your time and grab each weed individually at its base and then pull slowly and steadily to ease the roots from the soil.

3. Ply the proper tools.

Many gardeners find that a few tools make weeding speedier. Choose well-made implements with a solid handle that feels comfortable in your grasp and a head or blade made of tough forged steel. Also, select tools that suit your weeding method, either kneeling or standing.

Kneeling tools: These have relatively short handles, from about six to 12 inches long. Rake-type tools with finger-like prongs (such as the Gardener’s Claw Rake, available on Amazon) work well for scraping up surface weeds with minimal root systems, such as henbit. A hook neck tool (such as the CobraHead Weeder, available on Amazon) can be positioned behind the base of a weed and used to dig in and scoop out the intruder. To remove weeds between beneficial plants, try an angled hand hoe like the Nejiri Gama Hoe (also available on Amazon), which features a sharp point for getting into tight spots. Hand shovels can be used to dig out large weed roots.

Standing tools: For removing many weeds at once, it’s hard to beat the tried-and-true long-handled hoe, but today’s manufacturers have done just that! A hoe with a sharpened blade, such as the ProHoe Rogue Garden Hoe (available on Amazon), can sever roots beneath the soil surface with a single chop. Grip-and-pull weeders like Fiskars’ Deluxe Stand-up Weeder (available on Amazon) promise to save time and labor when removing weeds with deep root systems, such as dandelions. Sharp prongs are driven deep into the soil by pressing a foot pedal, and then the prongs grip the roots securely and pull them right out.

Photo: amazon.com via Roundup

4. Understand herbicides.

Need a break from the strenuous work of pulling weeds? Controlling these unwanted crops with foliar herbicides (toxic substances absorbed through a plant’s leaves) is physically easier than either pulling or hoeing. Just be sure to consider the pros and cons of these weed killers before you go this route.

PROS

+ Spraying a foliar herbicide such as Roundup (available on Amazon) effectively kills individual weeds or large areas that are awash with weeds.

+ Foliar herbicides work fast, killing weeds sometimes within a day—and usually no longer than a week—of application.

+ There’s no need to remove weeds individually and no strain on your back from bending over and pulling weeds for long periods of time. After the weeds turn brown and die, rake them into a pile and dispose of them.

CONS

The wind could blow herbicidal spray onto beneficial plants, inadvertently harming or killing them.

Exposure to chemical herbicides may result in skin irritation while inhaling the spray can result in a sore throat and other respiratory woes. Care should always be taken not to come into contact with the spray.

Weeds that are chemically killed should not be placed in the compost bin. Traces of herbicides can survive the composting process and may result in stunting vegetation if later used in garden soil.

Chemical herbicides may interfere with the environment and studies indicate that the chemicals can affect earthworms and offset soil nutrients, leading to the leaching of chemicals into streams and underground aquifers. Consider a non-toxic herbicide, such as A.D.I.O.S Eco-Friendly Weed Control (available on Amazon), which will allow you to avoid the contamination problems associated with toxic herbicides.

5. Avoid pulling weeds with an ounce of prevention.

You don’t have to kill or pull weeds if they don’t grow in the first place, so consider a pre-emergent to keep weed seeds from germinating. Sprinkle a granular pre-emergent herbicide such as Preen’s Organic Vegetable Garden Weed Preventer (available on Amazon) on the soil and then water. The granules will dissolve and permeate the soil, creating a barrier around the weed seeds. A single application will last up to 12 weeks, after which the product can be reapplied.

Note that once a pre-emergent is in the soil, beneficial seeds won’t sprout either. For best results, wait until beneficial plants are four to eight inches tall before using a pre-emergent product (as directed on the package)—it won’t kill plants that are already growing.

6. Cut it out.

Some stubborn weeds, such as Canadian thistle, not only send deep roots that are extremely hard to pull, but also feature prickly stems and foliage that will pierce anything less than heavy leather gloves. When dealing with these tough customers, reach for a sharp pair of nippers, such as TABOR TOOLS Bypass Pruning Shears (available on Amazon) for small to medium size weeds or long-handled shears, such as Fiskars 28” Bypass Loppers (available on Amazon) for cutting down those large Canadian thistles. The roots will still remain in the soil, but in most cases, if you remove the entire growing part of the plant, it can no longer receive the sunshine it needs to survive.

7. Know when to turn up the heat!

If you find yourself with a large swath of weeds that don’t respond to other methods, consider burning them out. A weed burner, such as the Red Dragon Weed Torch Kit (available on Amazon), connects to a standard propane tank to deliver a flame directly to the weeds, scorching and killing them. A weed burner works well on invaders growing beneath fences or encroaching near raised garden beds. Be sure weeds are green, not brown and dry. You want to scorch them, not start a fire. Check with local authorities before using a weed torch as some communities may restrict or ban their use.

Hot water can also kill weeds. Carefully pour a pitcher of just-boiled water directly on weeds or use a steam weeder, such as the DynaSteam Weeder (available at Amazon), to simplify the process—and reduce the risk of dripping scalding water on your feet.

You can also use heat to kill weeds between gardening seasons. After harvest, cover a planting bed with dark landscape plastic (hold it in place rocks or bricks) and leave it on over the winter. Sun hitting the plastic it will raise the soil temperature beneath to destroy weed seeds.

8. Grow a no-till garden.

Every fall and again every spring, home gardeners can be found turning their garden soil to helps break up heavy clay, distribute organic matter, and deliver oxygen to the soil. Tilling in this way, however, also brings dormant weed seeds to the surface where they quickly sprout. An alternative to the turning the soil several times annually—and reduce weed growth—is a no-till garden.

You will till, but only once—when you start the garden to loosen the soil. Then, you’ll cover the soil with four to six inches of organic mulch (dried leaves, grass clippings, or hardwood chips). The mulch helps keep the soil beneath moist and also prevents weed seeds from sprouting by keeping light from reaching the surface. When you want to plant seeds or transplant seedlings, just push the mulch aside in that spot.

For a vegetable garden, this might mean creating long V-shaped rows in the mulch with bare soil only visible inside the “V.” Crops grow in the narrow rows, and after harvest, remove the spent plants and cover the area again with mulch. Once you’ve established a no-till garden, add a few inches of mulch every year (the old mulch will biodegrade and settle) and push the soil aside as described each time you plant.

In your quest to keep your yard and garden weed-free, it’s easy to make some overzealous mistakes. Before you begin pulling weeds, read up on the best tips.

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If you were to track every hour spent in your garden, you would probably find that you do an inordinate amount of weeding. And while the first few weeks of tearing up these intruders can prove mildly satisfying, the chore soon wears thin. Even more maddening—you are just six simple strategies away from your garden not needing weeds anymore.

What’s that? A garden needs weeds? Weeds are nature’s healing remedy for sites that are in a wounded, plantless state, but weeds and gardeners have different ideas of what makes for a good recovery. Armed with a better understanding of weeds and the strategies outlined here, you can win every future skirmish, giving you more time to enjoy your well-groomed garden.

1. Let sleeping weeds lie

Every square inch of your garden contains weed seeds, but only those in the top inch or two of soil get enough light to trigger germination. Digging and cultivating brings hidden weed seeds to the surface, so assume weed seeds are there ready to erupt, like ants from an upset anthill, every time you open a patch of ground. Dig only when you need to and immediately salve the disturbed spot with plants or mulch.

In lawns, minimize soil disturbance by using a sharp knife with a narrow blade to slice through the roots of dandelions and other lawn weeds to sever their feed source rather than digging them out. Keep in mind that weed seeds can remain dormant for a long, long time.

2. Mulch, mulch, mulch

Mulch benefits plants by keeping the soil cool and moist and depriving weeds of light. Organic mulches, in particular, can actually host crickets and carabid beetles, which seek out and devour thousands of weed seeds.

Some light passes through chunky mulches, and often you will discover—too late—that the mulch you used was laced with weed seeds. It’s important to replenish the mulch as needed to keep it about 2 inches deep (more than 3 inches deep can deprive soil of oxygen). In any case, you can set weeds way back by covering the soil’s surface with a light-blocking sheet of cardboard, newspaper, or biode­gradable fabric and then spreading prettier mulch over it.

If you choose to use this method on seldom-dug areas, such as the root zones of shrubs and trees, opt for tough landscape fabric for the light-blocking bottom sheet. There is a catch, however: As soon as enough organic matter accumulates on the landscape fabric, weed seeds dropped by birds or carried in on the wind will start to grow. For the bottom layer of fabric to be effective, these must be pulled before they sink their roots through and into the ground.

Monday: Kill weeds. Tuesday: Kill weeds…

If you’re a new gardener—or you’re working in a wild and weedy space—the first season will likely be a rough one. Commit (and stick) to a weeding schedule, and don’t take on more space than you can manage. If you have more weeds than you can handle, keep weedy areas mowed until you’re ready to conquer them.

3. Weed when the weeding’s good

The old saying “Pull when wet; hoe when dry” is wise advice when facing down weeds. After a drenching rain, stage a rewarding weeding session by equipping yourself with gloves, a sitting pad, and a trug or tarp for collecting the corpses. As you head out the door, slip an old table fork into your back pocket because there’s nothing better for twisting out tendrils of henbit or chickweed. When going after bigger thugs, use a fishtail weeder to pry up taprooted weeds, like dandelion or dock.

Under dry conditions, weeds sliced off just below the soil line promptly shrivel up and die, especially if your hoe has a sharp edge. In mulched beds, use an old steak knife to sever weeds from their roots, then patch any open spaces left in the mulch.

Heat is the key to composting weeds

Few experiences compare to the joy of watching weeds shrivel in the sun after a morning weeding session, but then what should you do with them? Their best resting place, of course, is a compost pile or bin, which is the end of the story if the weeds going in are free of seeds. In reality, however, a good half of the weeds you pull probably hold seeds. Separating the seedies from other weedies is impractical, so weed seeds in compost are customarily killed by raising the temperature in the heap.

Keep it hot. Running a hot heap calls for precise mixing and remixing of materials. Rather than struggle to heat up a heap that wants to run cold, I suggest waiting until a weedy heap reaches a nearly rotted state to set things right. From there, you can solarize small batches of moist compost in black plastic nursery liners that are enclosed in clear plastic bags and placed in the sun for two to three days.

Now you’re cooking. Easier than solarizing, plug in an old Crock-Pot outdoors, turn it to its lowest setting, and warm batches of compost while you sleep (three hours at 160°F kills most weed seeds).

Heat treating weedy compost destroys many of the microscopic life-forms that give compost its punch, so it’s a good idea to reprocess cooked compost for two to three weeks before using it in the garden. Place it in a plastic storage bin with a handful of earthworms borrowed from your garden and it will soon be laced with humic acids and other plant-pleasing compounds.

4. Lop off their heads

When you can’t remove weeds, the next best thing is to chop off their heads. With annual weeds, dead­heading buys you a few weeks of time before the weed “seed rain” begins. Cutting back the tops of perennial weeds, like bindweed, reduces reseeding and forces them to use up food reserves and exhaust their supply of root buds, thus limiting their spread.

You will need pruning loppers to take down towers of ragweed or poke, or you can step up to a string trimmer equipped with a blade attachment to cut prickly thistles or brambles down to nubs. No matter which method you choose, chopping down weeds before they go to seed will help keep them from spreading.

5. Mind the gaps between plants

Close plant spacing chokes out emerging weeds by shading the soil between plants. You can prevent weed-friendly gaps from the get-go by designing with mass plantings or in drifts of closely spaced plants rather than with polka dots of widely scattered ones. You can usually shave off about 25 percent from the recommended spacing.

Most spacing recommendations, however, are based on the assumption that adjoining plants will barely touch when they reach mature size, so stick with the guidelines when working with plants that are prone to foliar diseases, such as bee balms (Monarda didyma and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 4–9) and phloxes (Phlox paniculata and cvs., Zones 4–8).

More on controlling weeds

  • Say Goodbye to Weed Worries
  • Weeding Made Easy
  • Video: Controlling Weeds

6. Water the plants you want, not the weeds you’ve got

Put drought on your side by depriving weeds of water. Placing drip or soaker hoses beneath mulch efficiently irrigates plants while leaving nearby weeds thirsty. In most climates, depriving weeds of water reduces weed-seed germination by 50 to 70 percent. Watch out, though, for the appearance of deeply rooted perennial weeds, such as bindweed and nutsedge, in areas that are kept moist. They can take off in a flash when given the benefits of drip irrigation.

Beyond these strategies, enriching your soil with organic matter every chance you get can move your garden along down the weed-free path. Soil scientists aren’t sure how it works, but fewer weed seeds germinate in soil that contains fresh infusions of good compost or organic matter. One theory makes elegantly simple sense: When soil is healthy and well fed, weed seeds sense that they are out of a job and are less likely to appear.

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Proven methods for controlling weeds in your garden